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LABOUR is right that Sajid Javid’s pilot plan for recruiting migrant fruit and vegetable pickers will not be enough to plug anticipated labour shortages on British farms.
However, shadow food, environment and rural affairs secretary Sue Hayman’s pledge to reinstate the agricultural workers’ scheme merely addresses one symptom of a much deeper-rooted problem.
To be fair to Hayman, she fleshes out that vision — the decision to bring back the Agricultural Wages Board, announced by Jeremy Corbyn at this year’s Tolpuddle festival, will do far more for the sustainability of British agriculture by pushing up wages.
And the promise to prevent British food being undercut in reckless trade deals is also spot on, although a little late given Parliament has now ratified the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) that the EU cooked up with Canada.
Canada’s food safety standards are lower than those in the EU — having been lowered in turn by Canada’s enrolment in the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), driving standards down to the lowest common denominator with United States agribusiness.
As a report by Greenpeace, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy noted last year: “Canadian agribusiness is already objecting to the continued existence of stricter EU food safety standards, saying they are inconsistent with Ceta and a problem that must be resolved.”
Hayman’s promise to restore the agricultural workers’ scheme will not solve any of the underlying problems on our farms.
The reason the David Cameron government scrapped the scheme in 2013 was that it seemed to be moot. It allowed Romanian and Bulgarian workers to get fruit-picking jobs in Britain at a time when they did not have the right to work here otherwise.
From 2013 both countries had transitional labour market curbs removed, so workers from them could come here anyway and had no need of special visas.
Was the National Farmers Union satisfied? No, it denounced the Cameron government’s decision and called for the scheme to be extended beyond the EU, to countries such as Ukraine.
The bosses’ organisation’s fear was that if Romanians and Bulgarians were allowed to do anything else, they would certainly not opt to pick fruit – so a new group of workers who didn’t have other options was needed. Which suggests the pay and conditions in the sector were not terribly attractive.
Restoring the Agricultural Wages Board is a better solution, since it tackles a reason for the shortage of labour — low pay — without resorting to the super-exploitation of poorly paid migrants.
On its own, though, it will not be enough. The decline of rural communities across Britain is linked to other factors.
Privatised transport networks are not interested in serving communities, but turning a profit, and the result has been the decimation of Britain’s rural transport infrastructure. Many villages are now served by one bus service a week, if that.
A failure to regulate house prices has allowed second-home owners living in cities to drive the cost of village housing beyond the reach of people employed in agriculture.
If people can’t afford to live near farms, have no means of transport to get to farms and earn a pittance if they do somehow manage it, they are unlikely to consider farm work a practical option.
Corbyn’s Labour has the ambition to address these issues by controlling rents, clamping down on second-home ownership, raising wages and nationalising the bus network.
But it will require a systematic cross-departmental effort and a strategic approach directed through the planned regional investment bank.
Hayman’s fear that a “no deal” Brexit would leave British farms in the lurch is not wrong in the short term, but a sustainable revival of our agriculture depends on a government free of EU restrictions on state aid and publicly owned services that operate on a non-commercial basis to meet the needs of communities.
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